But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbour?” Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity….
*Note: Sermons are posted in the manuscript draft that they were preached in, and may contain typos or other errors that were resolved in my delivery. See the Sherwood Park Lutheran Facebook Page for video
We have been making our way through Luke’s gospel for a few weeks now. Today, we hear a well known parable again. We pick up with Jesus just after the 70 disciples have returned and we hear about The Good Samaritan. Just the name of this familiar parable carries so much meaning for us. We speak of good Samaritans as, those who carry out random acts of kindness to complete strangers. We praise Good Samaritan and altruistic behaviour. We even name hospitals and care homes after the Good Samaritan. Being a Good Samaritan is an ideal to aspire to.
We know this story, and we are often pretty sure that we think we know what it means. We have all heard the sermons that come along with this story. Condemnation for the priest and the levite who walk on by. Praise for the Good Samaritan who stops to help when he has no obligation to help. And so follows the logic. See your neighbour in unexpected people. Be Good Samaritans to those in need. Don’t look down who are less fortunate than you are. We hear this story and we remember the moral messages that we have heard associated with it. We can almost just turn our brains off at this point, because we know the story and we probably know the end of the sermon.
So often we forget why Jesus told this story in the first place.
It all begins with Jesus teaching and preaching, when an expert in the law stands up to challenge him. Not a lawyer in the chasing ambulances and cheesy late night commercials sense. But an expert in Hebrew law, the Torah, the law of Moses. Religious law. The question that the challenger asks is not an honest question, but one meant to trap Jesus. To get Jesus to fall in line with tradition religious teaching, or out himself as a heretic.
“What must I do to inherit eternal life?”
It is a loaded question. A tough question. A dangerous question.
It begins with “What must I do” a statement that is searching for certainty and control. It comes from a self-centred place, it is about me, my life, my actions, my power.
And “to inherit eternal life?” It is a question of place, of God’s place in our world, in our lives. It is not so much how can I get into heaven, but more about how can I be in control, how I can be God in God’s place, how can I be the one who determines my own goodness and righteousness.
Jesus turns the question back on the lawyer, and forces the lawyer to answer his own question with proper religious teaching. Jesus’ clever reversal reveals the lawyer’s true motivation. In perhaps the most important line of the whole story, we hear that the lawyer wants to justify himself.
The lawyer wants to justify himself. Save himself. Earn his own way into heaven. Earn his own salvation. Make himself righteous.
As Lutherans we should know this word. One of the most important refrains of Martin Luther and the reformers was, Justification by Grace through Faith and not by works. Meaning, we are saved not by works, but by grace.
And yet most of the time, most of us would rather be with the lawyer. We would much prefer to save ourselves, we would much prefer to be the who make ourselves right, who justify ourselves, who judge ourselves and others, who earn our own way into heaven.
In fact most Christians, and even Lutherans, despite what we are taught in confirmation, if asked, would say that in order to get into heaven you “have to be a good person”. And while it sounds innocent enough, it is actually a statement that puts us in control. Our actions determine our worth and righteousness.
But Jesus does not let the lawyer off the hook. Nor does he let us off the hook.
We want to make this parable all about how we can be Good Samaritans, but consider again the characters of the story. The priest and levite are not the bad guys, but in fact the best that human religion and human laws have to offer. They pass by not because they are uncaring, but because maybe they feel like their religion demands it. They could be made unclean by touching a dead body, which would then prevent them from fulfilling their religious duty as they faced 7 days of ritual purification.
Or maybe they didn’t help because they were afraid. They worried that the same bandits who caught this man would get them. They were worried about what would happen to themselves if they stopped to help.
The Samaritan is a foreign Jew, and outsider who worships the same God, but NOT in the same way. A Jew that is thought to be unclean already, a jew who worships wherever he wants, not only in the temple. This man can help because he is already rejected by law and religion. This man does help he worried about what would happen to the man in the ditch if he did NOT stop.
The lawyer would not want to be a ‘Good Samaritan’ and nor would we really. We want to know that the good we do will get us into heaven, but we do not really want to be outsiders or unclean or those on the margins of society.
This story is not a moral tale about good works that will earn us heaven, it is not about who is my neighbour, bur really about the question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”. Hear the story again, as Jesus’ audience would have heard it:
“Human kind” was going down from “The Holy City” into “the night”, and fell “into the hands of Sin and Death” who stripped “Humanity,” beat “humanity”, and went away, leaving “humanity” half dead. Now by chance “Religion” was going down that road; and when he saw “Human kind”, “Religion” passed by on the other side. So likewise “The Law”, when he came to the place and saw “Humanity” passed by on the other side. But “the Grace and Mercy of God” while traveling came near “to Human kind”; and when “Grace and Mercy” saw humanity, “she” was moved with pity. “Grace and Mercy” went to humanity and bandaged humanity’s wounds, and fed humanity with bread and wine. Then “Grace and Mercy lifted humanity up”, brought humanity to an Inn, ‘a place of rest’, and took care of humankind. The next day “she” took out two “days wages’” and gave them to the innkeeper, and said, `Take care of “human kind”; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.
We are not the Good Samaritan. We do not have the power to justify our selves. We cannot do works good enough to get ourselves into heaven and nor does God expect us to.
We are the ones lying in the ditch. We are the ones who are half – dead, the ones who are judged and passed over by religion and the law. The ones who are in the need but for whom there is only condemnation offered by the law and religion.
And yet, as we lie half-dead, there is One who can offer grace and mercy. There is One who is not constrained by law or religion, One who is not concerned with becoming unclean by coming into contact with us. One who is more concerned with what will happen to us if they do not help, that what will happen to them if they do.
And this is the One who finds us in the ditch, One who speaks a word of forgiveness and of mercy to our dying bodies, One who washes and cleans us in the waters of baptism, One who feeds us and heals us with bread and wine, with the Body and Blood of God.
God the Good Samaritan is who this story is really about. God who saves, who justifies, who makes righteous is the One that meets us on road, who finds us half way to sin and death. God is the one who grants us eternal life, we do not earn it ourselves.
Like so much when it comes to what Jesus says to us, we would rather make it about ourselves, for good or for ill. Yet God knows this, and God crosses the road for us anyways. God meets us where we are. Whether we are trying to trap Jesus, or whether we would rather justify ourselves, God comes. God comes to us in Christ, comes to us on our terms, comes to us with grace and mercy, with forgiveness for our desire to be in control.
The parable of the Good Samaritan who reminds us to be to good people and to care for our neighbour, may very well turn our brains right off. But the parable of the God Samaritan who cross the road, who pulls out of the ditch, who shows us grace and mercy, who tells us of a God who would justify, who would save us no matter who little we want to be saved. This is the parable that Jesus tell us today.
The parable of humanity in the ditch, and God the Good Samaritan.